Work in Sports
Where we go from here
College football faces even bigger, faster future
By Stewart Mandel, CNNSI.com
Track stars doubling as quarterbacks. A month-long football equivalent to the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten morphing into the Big 20.
Just some of the possibilities for college football as the sport progresses through the 21st century.
While followers both inside and outside the game have differing opinions as to where it's headed, two words are repeated often: faster and bigger.
"When at one time it was a game of strength, now it's more a game of speed and strength," says Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany. "Look at the kind of plays Penn State's linebacker [LaVar Arrington] made the last couple years -- it looked more like basketball than football out there."
Virginia Tech quarterback Michael Vick raised many eyebrows last season by utilizing his remarkable speed to make his feet as dangerous as his arm. According to his coach, a move has been building for some time toward more speed at quarterback and other traditionally less-mobile positions.
"Defenses kind of started this whole thing," says Frank Beamer. "When they started coming up to the line with guys like Lawrence Taylor, and you've got a cornerback with speed that can blitz, your quarterback better be able to move back there.
"If a guy can throw like all get-up but can't run -- I'd hate to play a guy like that at quarterback myself. It's become too tough trying to protect him against defenses that are so tough and quick."
More teams are going to a spread offense each year, including traditionally stodgy powers like Alabama and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, more and more dazzling athletes like Michigan's Heisman-winning cornerback Charles Woodson or Florida's "freakish" linebacker Jevon Kearse keep popping up on defense.
As a result, the emphasis on speed isn't likely to go away soon. The only question is, how much faster can players get?
"Michael Vick ran a 4.3-[second] 40-[yard dash] two springs ago; who's to say next spring he won't run a 4.2?" says Beamer. "When I started coaching, if you talked about a guy running 4.5, that was unbelievable. Now we've got 15 guys on our team who can run a 4.5."
Just as important to today's game as speed is size. Thanks to the growing prevalence of weight training -- plus some evolving genetics -- 300-pound offensive linemen have become standard.
But the players aren't the only ones getting bigger; so are the leagues in which they play.
The Big Ten grew to 11 with the addition of Penn State in 1993 and sought Notre Dame last year for a 12th. The Big Eight absorbed four from the old Southwest Conference to become the Big 12 in '96.
The trend to become bigger -- and in turn fatten wallets through more lucrative TV deals and additional bowl games -- isn't likely to disappear.
Nor is the public's perpetual cry for a college football playoff.
ABC's recently extended deal for the Bowl Championship Series runs through 2006, after which the interests of TV networks, schools, conferences and bowl games will once again collide to determine the future of postseason football. Opinions vary sharply as to what might happen.
"I'm not totally sure this BCS thing isn't going to develop into some sort of playoff system, because of the inroads it's made in creating revenue," says BYU coach LaVell Edwards, whose team's own conference, the Mountain West, is essentially excluded from the BCS equation.
"I've got some athletic directors in my conference that have been outspoken proponents [of a playoff]. But I don't see that possibility presently," says Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg, who notes the increased late-season fan interest the last two years with the advent of the BCS computer ratings.
Says Delany, whose league, along with the Pac-10 and the Rose Bowl, were key pieces to forming the BCS: "I think of the Big Ten athletic directors and coaches, a great majority don't support [a playoff]. A playoff would include eight or 16 teams, but the present [bowl] system includes 40 to 50. Also, I think we're confident the regular season is enhanced by the bowl system, but we're not sure it would be by a playoff."
As the money surrounding the sport piles up, so do concerns about seemingly the only people not benefiting: the players.
With schools continually stung by scandal when an athlete imperils his playing status by procuring money illegally, the NCAA is considering a proposal that would change the face of amateurism entirely and allow athletes to earn money professionally but still retain at least some college eligibility.
"The thing I worry about most is the whole darn business of agents and kids leaving early," says Bernie Kish, executive director of the College Football Hall of Fame. "It's reached epidemic proportions in basketball, but its starting to trickle down to football. And as long as it's become a very big business, with coaches making so much money -- that's OK, but it's losing some of its purity."
College football will also soon have to respond to developments that are quickly changing the society in which it is played.
Already, the Internet has influenced how fans follow their favorite teams. A Stanford alum who lives in Pennsylvania can access coverage of the Cardinal and interact with fellow fans. A Mississippi fan can "watch" a Rebels game play by play even if it's not televised.
But the same type of advancement has also made people more mobile, switching jobs and cities at rapid rates, which could make it harder for fans to develop the sort of regional ties so important to the sport.
"I wish we knew the answer, whether technology will help us or be a great threat," says Weiberg. "I do think there's a strong affinity in college sports that ties the fan to the institution, not necessarily the player or the coach. As long as that can be maintained, the interest will always be there."
No matter how much the sport changes over the next century, at least one thing should remain certain: As long as the team still runs out of the tunnel on Saturday, future generations of fans should feel the same chills.
Stewart Mandel is college sports producer for CNNSI.com